Amazing Grace – John Newton
John Newton, the celebrated English preacher and hymn-writer, realized that he was a trophy of divine grace. A while before his death, a fellow minister came in to have breakfast with him. Family prayers followed the meal. Mr. Newton’s sight had almost failed, and he was unable to read. He sat and listened to his friend as he read the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians. When this tenth verse was read, “But by the grace of God I am what I am,” Mr. Newton began to speak:
“I am not what I ought to be. Ah! How imperfect and deficient! I am not what I wish to be. I abhor what is evil, and I would cleave to what is good. I am not what I hope to be. Soon, soon, shall I put off, with mortality, sin and imperfection. Though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was, a slave to sin and Satan; and I can heartily join with the apostle and acknowledge, By the grace of God I am what I am.”
John Newton’s conversion is a true illustration of saving grace. When he was only seven years old, his pious mother was taken from him. However, she had taught him when just an infant to pray and had sowed in his young heart the seeds of the Gospel.
When a young man he went to sea on board a slave ship with his father and learned all the evil of the seaman’s life. Still later, he was forced into the navy. He deserted, but was caught and stripped and beaten, until the blood flowed from his wounds. He had now become a hardened infidel. He fell in with African slave traders. He went on from bad to worse, until he himself was sold as a slave. He was reduced to utter poverty, starving and sinning and blaspheming. Early in 1748 he was rescued by a sea captain who had known his father. John Newton ultimately became captain of his own ship, one that plied the slave trade
Those days merchant ship would make the first leg of their voyage from England nearly empty until they would anchor off the African coast. There tribal chiefs would deliver to the Europeans stockades full of men and women, captured in raids and wars against other tribes. Buyers would select the finest specimens, which would be bartered for weapons, ammunition, metal, liquor, trinkets, and cloth. Then the captives would be loaded aboard, packed for sailing. They were chained below decks to prevent suicides, laid side by side to save space, row after row, one after another, until the vessel was laden with as many as 600 units of human cargo.
Captains sought a fast voyage across the Atlantic’s infamous “middle passage,” hoping to preserve as much as their cargo as possible, yet mortality sometimes ran 20% or higher. When an outbreak of smallpox or dysentery occurred, the stricken were cast overboard. Once they arrived in the New World, blacks were traded for sugar and molasses to manufacture rum, which the ships would carry to England for the final leg of their “triangle trade.” Then, off to Africa; for yet another round. John Newton transported more than a few shiploads of the 6 million African slaves brought to the Americas in the 18th century.
One day he found a Gospel book on board, and he took it up and read it. He was thus led to ask the question, “What if these things should be true?” The thought terrified him, and he closed the book. He had had a sight of the holiness of God. He went to his hammock that night as usual, having contrived to put the solemn question out of his mind. However, in the dark of the night he was awakened by the dash of waves. A storm had arisen, a terrible sea was sweeping over the vessel, and the cabin was fast filling with water. The cry arose, “The ship is sinking!” All was confusion and terror.
John Newton’s life came up before him as on a cinema screen. He saw himself a guilty sinner in the hands of a holy God. For four solid weeks the vessel was tossed to and fro, he being sometimes at the helm and sometimes at the pumps, wave upon wave breaking over him. In the midst of john-newton-amazing-gracehis danger, he began to cry, “My mother’s God, the God of mercy – have mercy on me!”
That storm was to John Newton what the earthquake was to the jailer at Philippi. It got him to his knees. It brought his sins before him. It brought before him his eternal ruin. It brought him to the Cross-where he saw the love of God being poured out in the blood of Christ.
The sight of the crucified Savior not only wrought conviction of sin, but also brought peace to his heart. Here John Newton saw the love of God supplying the sacrifice which His holiness demanded, the Son of God stepping into the place of ungodly men and at the hands of justice suffering the wrath and condemnation due to man on account of sin. By trusting in that finished work the “African slave trader” was saved. Truly, this is “Amazing Grace!”
While working as a tide surveyor he studied for the ministry, and for the last 43 years of his life preached the gospel in Olney and London. At 82, Newton said, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.” No wonder he understood so well grace–the completely undeserved mercy and favor of God.
It was the hot tears flowing down the furrowed cheeks and prayer his mother that sow the seed to be watered by the stormy ocean and he was transformed. Among the thousands of men and women who came to Christ through Newton’s ministry, there was a man called Thomas Scott, cultured, selfish and self-satisfied became a believer. Thomas used both his pen and voice that led thousands of unbelieving hearts to Christ, among them, a dyspeptic, melancholic young man, William Cowper, who composed another famous hymn:
There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins,
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.
And this song has brought hundreds to the Savior who gave His life for them on Calvary. Among them was William Wilberforce, who became a great Christian statesman, and unfastened the shackles from the feet of thousands of British slaves. The faithfulness of Newton’s mother in her prayer brought the British Parliament to pass an act of slave emancipation.
Newton’s tombstone reads, “John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.” But a far greater testimony outlives Newton in the most famous of the hundreds of hymns he wrote and among them the all time favorites:
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath bro’t me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.
Dr.J.M. Ngul Khan Pau